WASHINGTON -- The commercial space industry came of age at 9:56 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on May, 25, 2012.
The spectacular success of Space Exploration Technologies Inc.’s first attempt to send an unmanned cargo ship to the International Space Station has surprised nearly everyone. Indeed, SpaceX and NASA officials spent a lot of time prior to Tuesday’s (May 22) launch dampening expectations for the test flight, suggesting that merely getting the Dragon spacecraft to orbit for the second time would be considered a success.
Anything beyond that would be considered gravy.
SpaceX and its visionary founder Elon Musk took their time, validated all spacecraft systems before launch (especially navigation and communications units being flown to the space station for the first time), then quickly fixed a faulty main engine valve that delayed the first launch attempt last week. On Tuesday, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket hit a one-second instantaneous launch window and reached orbit without a hitch.
Friday’s climax, the “grappling and berthing” maneuver using the space station’s robotic arm had a few tense moments. Along with sunlight blinding two of Dragon’s thermal imagers, one of its two laser radars used to confirm its position relative to the space station was not functioning properly. Only one radar was needed for the capture maneuver, but mission controllers warned the space station crew that Dragon would abort if the second radar failed. It worked.
“There’s so much that could’ve gone wrong and it went right,” a weary Musk said during a celebratory mission status briefing. “We were able to overcome some last-minute issues with some fast thinking.” Musk said SpaceX had to recalibrate the radar to “tighten the beam, and it worked.”
SpaceX founder Elon Musk
Working under pressure to solve show-stopping problems just meters from ultimate goal of docking with the space station illustrates how commercial space companies must mature. It wasn’t exactly Neil Armstrong running out of gas 300 feet above the surface of the moon, but a listener could sense the tension on the communications link as Dragon approached the station.
In the end, space station flight engineer Don Pettit made it look easy, joking that it was more like a simulation. The fact is Pettit’s feat was the result of nearly six years of planning since NASA signed up SpaceX to deliver cargo to the space station. “There were a thousand things that had to go right,” reminded Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s commercial space program.
If the rest of Dragon’s mission goes as well as the first four days, NASA officials said SpaceX may begin hauling more cargo to the space station as early as the “September  timeframe.”
Musk said a few weeks ago that you learn more from success than from failure
. I found this statement puzzling given the extreme risks involved in spaceflight. SpaceX achieved a great success this week, but there will be failures. Lives will one day be on the line, and SpaceX must now redouble its efforts to ensure the safety and reliability of its rocket and spacecraft.
For now, to quote the old Apollo astronauts who inspired Musk and the rest of us, he, SpaceX and NASA did what they said they would do.